Lisa Stice’s Permanent Change of Station (Middle West Press, 2018) adds nicely to the growing body of writing by military family members. These poems are about the lonely home life of a military spouse, her daughter, and their dog. All are nameless, rather indistinct and shadowy figures. The great absence is the writer’s husband, presumably in Afghanistan, but the poems rarely mention him.
There are other shadowy figures in some poems, like furniture movers and personnel officers, more implied than present, like people in our dreams.
Many good book titles are paradoxes or playful uses of ordinary phrases. Military writers seem especially to like wordplay involving military phrases, and that includes me. Lisa Stice’s title is an ordinary military phrase used here in part to provide the circumstances of the poet, and in part to identify the book’s larger theme.
That theme is made explicit in the opening poem, “PCS.”
Now we understand — we’re permanently changed. That can be counted on, and we change often.
Yes, it isn’t just the duty station that has changed, but the people involved. That’s a nice little paradox, that the only thing we can really count on is that we can’t count on things or ourselves staying as they are. This too shall pass.
The permanence of change itself, not just the latest iteration of change, haunts the poet throughout these 60 poems. Heraclitus told us more than two millennia ago that all of life is constantly in flux, and he got it right.
The poet’s then-current status was separation from her deployed husband, and unsettled life in temporary housing. Her poem “Father’s Day,” in its entirety, says:
It’s just the three of us
Lisa Stice’s poems in this book usually have little or no punctuation, but the period at the end of “Father’s Day” seems to add an appropriate note of finality, intensifying the effect of the stanza break before the last line.
Is the speaker lonely, or resentful, or nostalgic, or angry, or despairing, or quarreling, or self-pitying, or depressed? I find no clue within the poem itself, although the collection as a whole suggests a melancholy resignation. But as W. H. Auden observed, what you see depends on who you are.
Like the other poems, “Father’s Day” does not offer an ah-ha moment. Stice’s poems in Permanent Change of Station are about the grim daily reminders of familiar unhappiness, not about ah-hah moments of discovery.
That poem and others in this book seemed to me on first reading like snippets from actual emails to the poet’s husband, brief anecdotes or observations about the day that were sent to him and then preserved, trimmed, tweaked, and thus made into impersonal art for readers.
These are minimalist poems, some as few as 5, 8, 11 or 12 words. Some, like “After a Nightmare” and Fifth Choice,” are very slight, perhaps too slight to be thought of as poems. A poem like “Another Disappointment” and “Answer: Just Empty” are lovely in their brevity, but seem incomplete, like early ideas that become Kay Ryan poems. Stice has chosen to give readers the crisp image and moment, not elaboration, and like all good writers she leaves some of the work to be done by the reader.
The poems here do not have the energy of anger or injustice. The poet is waiting out her temporary circumstances — and waiting drains energy, as every covid-19 shut-in knows well. The poet is reflective, inward. The poet’s circumstances are what they are, it is what it is, stuff happens, what are you gonna do, sorry ’bout that, no explanation is necessary and perhaps no explanation is possible. The poet has no passably good answers for her daughter’s questions about where’s daddy, and she might not have reassuring answers for herself, either.
Many of the poems are marked by reticence, rather than by self revelation. Spouses of people deployed in a combat zone are reticent by necessity and good manners, I believe. A good spouse wants to protect the other from worry. Morale is never improved by telling your distant spouse about your bad day, whether that involves a wounded platoon mate in Afghanistan, or a dead car battery back home in the states.
But if these poems are often impersonal, they are also surely true. After each poem the reader is likely to think, yes, that is how it is, or I know just how you feel.
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Lisa Stice’s webpage is https://lisastice.wordpress.com/. Middle West Press is at http://www.middlewestpress.com/
Author: Stephen Sossaman
Stephen Sossaman is Professor Emeritus of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. He now lives in California. He was an artillery fire direction computer in Viet Nam, serving in the Mekong Delta (1/84th artillery, 9th Infantry Division).